Osborne prepares to admit defeat on debt reduction

The Chancellor will abandon his debt rule to prevent even deeper cuts.

In his "emergency Budget" in June 2010, Osborne declared that "unless we deal with our debts there will be no growth". But as all Keynesians know, the reverse is true. Unless you stimulate growth, you can't deal with your debts. According to the latest independent forecasts, Osborne will be forced to borrow £174.9bn more than originally planned from 2012-16, a figure that is only likely to rise as growth remains anaemic or non-existent.

Indeed, so bad is the fiscal situation, that, as today's Times reports (£), Osborne is preparing to announce the abandonment of his golden debt rule in the Autumn Statement on 5 December. The rule, which forms the second part of his "fiscal mandate" (the first relates to the structural deficit, which the Chancellor aims to eliminate over a rolling five-year period), is designed to "ensure that debt is falling as a share of GDP by 2015-16". Based on the most recent set of forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, published at the time of the Budget, debt will decline from 76.3 per cent in 2014-15 before dropping to 76 per cent in 2015-16. But since then, the economy has fallen back into recession, with borrowing already up by more than a quarter on last year. As a result, independent forecasters now say that Osborne will miss his target. The IMF, for instance, has forecast that debt will rise from 78.8 per cent of GDP in 2014-15 to 79.9 per cent in 2015-16.

In response, the Chancellor could, of course, announce billions more in tax rises and spending cuts. But that would only further reduce growth, meaning that he might miss his target anyway, and would hardly endear him to voters already bruised by austerity. Thus, as the Times reports, Osborne, with David Cameron's agreement, "is ready to take a political hit on missing the target rather than face the "nightmare" of further cuts."

For the Chancellor, the consequences could be grim. The abandonment of the debt rule would dismay his party's fiscal conservatives, and could trigger the loss of the UK's AAA credit rating, the metric by which he has set such stock. But it could also offer Osborne one final chance to redeem himself. Once he accepts that debt reduction should not be prioritised over growth, the menu of policy options expands accordingly. Indeed, a  well-sourced leader (£) in yesterday's Times suggested that the Chancellor was even considering a small stimulus. And why not? With the UK able to borrow at the lowest interest rates for 300 years, it is only Osborne's political pride that has prevented a change of course thus far. Even the IMF has said that a reduced pace of deficit reduction would not lead to a rise in UK bond yields. Freed from his fiscal straitjacket, Osborne would finally be liberated to pursue a policy that works.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.